Reading Children’s Literature After the Tragedy of School Shootings

I cannot speak to the horror that the parents, guardians, and friends or anyone who knew the students and teachers killed at Robb Elementary School on May 24th felt or experienced. I can tell you that when I heard the news of the shooting, I was sitting in my car in San Antonio, Texas before going to pick up my two children—ages six and eight—from their elementary school. I can tell you that I cried most of the way there.  

I can also tell you that I failed as a parent that night. I stared at the news for a long time without my children in the room, and I told them to play outside. I felt numb. We had dinner together. However, I did not talk to them about the shooting at all. I did not want to say the wrong thing, or to scare them if they had not heard about it. It was their last week of school, it was a Tuesday, and they were counting down the days until it would be Friday. My son, the eight-year-old, woke up with a nightmare that night. I did not know if he had heard about the story on the news, or perhaps he had heard about it from his teachers or from friends at school. « Perhaps he had a nightmare about something else, » I told myself consolingly. When pressed the next day, my eight-year-old said he had dreamed about a monster. I responded that I had too.

What was supposed to be my response in this situation? What were supposed to be my words of comfort for my children? “What ought to be a Catholic parent’s response?” I wondered. A Catholic parent’s right, comforting words?  I did what I often do next. I prayed. I talked to my husband and my friends. Then, I found books for my family to read together.

For the past two and a half years, children in the United Stated and globally have undergone collective suffering: pandemic, war, racial violence, mass shootings. Death has followed their whole lives. Often, it has taken their lives. If it has not taken their lives, it has often taken the life of a loved one, or loved ones. Sickness has also followed children everywhere. Again, it has either touched them or someone whom they love: masks, ventilators, funerals, and scarcity too have been part of every child’s existence.

In his October 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes that “the Covid-19 pandemic” has made us all experience a “fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all.” The more problems we have, the harder it is for us to talk to each other about them; thus the more fragmented we have all become. Children, I contend, are simply being taken along for the ride in this tale of global terror we have all lived. Who is speaking directly to them? We might speak of them politically. We might say what should have been done for them. We might even be saying what ought to have been done earlier. Who, though, is speaking to them now on a global stage and inviting them into the conversation? Who is taking time in the present, in the now, to comfort them?

To be fair, I was not speaking as I should have been to my children that first night of the Robb Elementary School shooting, or the night after. I did not speak to my children about the shooting for an entire week. My son continued to have nightmares. To offset my not knowing what to say, I read those books I mentioned earlier with them. During the week of the shooting we focused on a few picture books. To this day, we are still reading those books and taking them with us in a bag wherever we go. The first is The Golden Book of Fairy Tales translated by Marie Ponsot and the second is the newer classic tale Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  

I chose these books for this period of our lives because there is a special comfort in fairy tales and fantasies, in stories with monsters that are defeated or abandoned by choice. Throughout the pandemic, book reading as a practice intensified because of its comforting quality. According to The New York Times, “print sales had their best year in a decade.” Not only did comfort reading skyrocket, but so too did comfort television viewing, especially anything nostalgia related. Adults during troubled times long for familiar plots and characters: An April 2020 Nielsen study about the “impact of COVID-19 on entertainment and consumption . . . concluded that more than half of consumers today seek comfort in familiar music and television shows. 87 percent of respondents reported listening to the same music they normally listen to, and 54 percent said they’d recently rewatched episodes of an old favorite TV show.”

As another study aptly puts it, adults during troubled times want to “Netflix and Heal.” In this same study, adults shared that they wanted endings they already knew and could anticipate and that they sought “quarantine heart salves” during the pandemic’s troubled times.[1] Children, of course, cannot remember with nostalgia a time pre-Covid or pre-mass school shootings. There are no “good old days of the past” for them to escape to. The now is what they know. The last few years are what they remember.

What I could offer my children, I considered as I contemplated the words I did not have to give them about the school shooting, was something akin to the nostalgic reading and viewing that adults have turned to en masse when they have felt the pangs of tragedy affect them. What I could offer to my children were fairy tales—stories with endings that the children could anticipate but also, importantly, ones that did not shirk away from the horror they knew existed in the world. In fairy tales, children can imagine themselves as heroes and heroines, fighting off evil, finding balm even when they live in times of total and utter uncertainty; that is, even when they live in the first part of the twenty-first century.

In “Little Red Riding Hood” by Charles Perrault,[2] which is in The Golden Book of Fairy Tales and is one of my daughter’s favorites, Red Riding Hood’s mother bakes “a batch of cookies” for Red’s grandmother; she bakes a comfort food. This story, which is about a page and a half long, contains within it multiple prongs of childhood fears. Red’s grandmother is sick: this is why Red takes her cookies. On the way to her grandmother’s house—where she traverses alone and through the woods—Red meets the Wolf, who wants to eat her. Red trustingly tells him where she is going when he asks her, never sensing danger from him or seeing him as a predator. The Wolf runs to the grandmother’s house before Red once she provides the information he seeks from her. On her way to her grandmother’s house, Red dawdles though. She “pick[s] some flowers,” “s[ings] some songs,” and “chase[s] some butterflies.” Red—even after seeing the Wolf and speaking to him—is not scared of him. She does not pick up on his malicious intentions at all. She readily tells him where she is going and why she is going there, and she puts her elderly grandmother in danger because she takes her time walking to the house.

I breathe in as I write this because I will reveal to you in a moment the conversation I eventually had with my six-year-old daughter about the school shooting in Ulvade.

Back to the fairy tale, the grandmother in the story is instinctively trusting like Red. When the Wolf knocks on her door and tells her he is Little Red Riding Hood with cookies, the grandmother invites him in, again believing him at his word. In Perrault’s version, the Wolf proceeds to eat “the grandmother very quickly.” Next, when Red comes and thinks the Wolf is his grandmother because he’s wearing the grandmother’s clothes, he eats her too. It is only when he howls “so loud” “in his true Wolf voice” that a hunter comes and “splits” the Wolf “down the middle” that the day is saved. Red and the grandmother pop out of the Wolf “as good as new.” The hunter, Red, and the grandmother then eat the chocolate chip cookies and have “a very good time.” The Wolf is put “in the garbage,” never to be thought of again.

As I mentioned, I did finally talk to my children about the shooting. I told my daughter that perhaps sometimes you might be able to tell when someone is not quite being honest with you. I used the “tricky people” concept that some readers may have heard of that has replaced the old “stranger danger” terminology used in the past. “Can’t you tell when someone is being dishonest? » I asked. “Can’t you tell when they’re being tricky?” My daughter, like Red (and, I have been told, like myself) trusts everyone she meets. She tells everyone what she is thinking right away, talks to strangers and friends alike, not differentiating between the two. So, when I asked her if there has ever been an adult that she has not trusted, an adult she has found “tricky”—and to please answer the question honestlymy daughter told me no. There has never been a person she has had a bad feeling about; no, not even an uneasy feeling. After my husband and I told her told her about the reality of what had happened in Ulvade, my daughter still answered no. No tricky people for her.

To add some context about my daughter’s character, while I have been writing this essay she has danced in and out of the room dressed as a princess, a queen, a rock star, a troll, and an old womanthe last costume was created from a hand towel she wrapped around her hair from the bathroom. Like Red, she is a wanderer and a creative soul who would likely meet the Wolf, tell him where she s off to, and then “pick flowers” and “chase butterflies.”

When talking with her about the shooting, and looking into her eyes, I was reminded of a few days earlier when we were at a playground next to our local library. She wandered off that day. My husband and I call her our little “wanderer.” All the moms in the vicinity of the park yelled for my daughter, saying her name, over and over—all looking around, all scared. Everyone had just seen her, they said. I had just seen her. Another mom spotted my daughter, as the six-year-old was walking back toward the playground. She was walking back lazily. She was sauntering, really. She had seen a flower across the way and wanted to see it closer; that is why she had wandered away, she explained to all of us who had been searching for her. She held the tiny yellow flower up and proudly showed it to us. She knew the rules about wandering off, but she also knew she would be right back, so she explained. The feeling I had when I grabbed her and held her, that is how I imagine Red’s mom felt when she heard her daughter had been eaten by a Wolf and then escaped from his stomach, “good as new.”

I realized when I looked in my daughter’s eyes when we were talking about the shooting—and when I remembered again that moment at the library playground—that there was nothing I could tell her that would ever be the right thing. I could warn her, like I did and like I was doing. I could give her the tools I knew from psychologists. I could give her the tools her school had sent me, about running and about listening, which I did. Nothing seemed to provide comfort to either of us though. Words, of which my daughter and I both have many, failed us. Finally, I simply said that if she got scared she should pray. Then, we hugged and held each other. After, we talked a little about bravery and being the heroine of the story. We also talked about the afterlife.

Catholic writer J.R.R. Tolkien famously coined the term eucastrophe for what must happen at the end of an ideal fairy tale—a joyous ending. He wrote that:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.[3]

At the end of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Red has done everything wrong. She trusts too much. She tells the Wolf everything. She enjoys the flowers in the woods. She does not know the Wolf is her grandmother. She and her grandmother are both eaten. Yet, a turn happens, the “true, Wolf voice” (i.e. evil) is heard and recognized for what it is by someone else, not by Red, and she is saved. Not only that, but Red also gets to eat cookies and have a party. This is what Tolkien would term a eucastrophe at the end of the fairy tale; it is “a sudden and miraculous grace.” Quite frankly, it is hope when there is, and perhaps ought not to be, any for Red. It is also the moment when my daughter returns with that little yellow flower in her hand to the playground. Eucatastrophe, the unexpected yet hoped for good ending.

I am going to be honest that I do not have a lot of hope to offer my children in general right now. There has been a global pandemic for the majority of their lives that they can remember, and there are people going into schools and shooting young children. 19 of them near our home recently. I will never have the right words, and I cannot offer my children safety. I have probably said things already in this essay that you as a reader might already disagree with about how I have parented my children during times of crises. At six-years-old, I know my daughter deserves better; she deserves better than having me as a mom and better than living in this fallen world. She deserves the hope of that “miraculous grace” of a eucastrophic ending. This is what fairy tales can offer her, and other children—comfort when there are monsters in our midst.

As a Catholic, Tolkien of course takes this ideal function of fairy tale ending a step further, writing that “the Birth of Christ is the Eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” Taken in this way, reading fairy tales can be seen as another way to evangelize to children, to offer joy and hope when there is none—to let them know that God’s grace will always be there even when it is undeserved. It will come as no surprise to readers that after this somewhat disheartening talk with my daughter, before we prayed together, we also read a fairy tale.

Here, I will share a little about the other more recent “fairy tale” I have been reading to my children often—this one more resonant with my eight-year-old son—Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Unlike Tolkien, Sendak was not Christian; in fact, he was an avowed atheist. Yet, I make the case that his book still offers that same comfort to child readers because of its fantastic quality.

In Where the Wild Things Are, the child protagonist, Max, wears a wolf suit and acts accordingly: he “makes mischief” and yells at his mother that he will “eat her up!”[4] Then, he dreams about going to a land where he is king of all the monsters. Eventually Max becomes “lonely” and wants to be “where someone loved him best of all.” The monsters threaten to eat him this time because they “love him so!” but Max returns to his room, where he “f[inds] his supper waiting for him.” 

In this story, Max is the wolf, unable to control his stirring, childhood emotions. Children, like adults, are neither fully innocent nor fully mature. They are growing, often veering from one extreme sentiment to the next, trying to understand the world around them—a world, right now, that is ever changing like they are. When my husband and I asked our son if he had heard about the Ulvade shooting, he said no. Then, a few minutes later, he said yes, more quietly, as if ashamed of his knowledge. Sendak once stated that “childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious, and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things . . . but I musn’t let the adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Our son perhaps wanted to protect us from how much he knew, to protect us from the danger that he is aware of and how much he carries with him even at so young an age. His nightmares belied his good efforts. I suspect he is not the only child today with nightmares like those he has had recently.

It is easier for adults to think that children do not know things—that they are protected by the mere fact of being children. Perhaps the most difficult balance as a parent is trying to protect one’s child from the horrors of the world for as long as one can and yet knowing that eventually knowledge will seep in, that evil will seep in to their lives. As a parent, you are always trying to prepare children for what is to come, yet you never know if you are doing it right, if you are sharing information too late, or too soon. You could be robbing them of something precious. Or, you could be not protecting them well enough. It is all dangerous territory. It is all where the wild things are.

Like Max in the story, my son is filled with serious emotions, and he is seriously smart. He also wants to seriously control the world. However, all of the horrors that children have been plagued with recentlypandemics and school shootingsbespeak the fact that my son cannot control his world. This frustrates him. My son is known in our house as a child who might have a screaming voice at times for anyone in the vicinity. In the end, he always, like Max, makes that decision to go “where someone love[s] him best of all.” That decision to choose love is not always an easy one for anyone, much less a child. This choice is what Where the Wild Things Are elucidates to young and old readers alike.

At the beginning of the book, Max screams at his mother that he will “EAT YOU UP!” feeling inspired to act out as he wears his wolf costume. The monsters in Max’s mind that he meets on his journey echo this phrase back to him when they beg him to stay with them, to stay with his wild emotions. They add another key phrase right after the one he yells at his mother: “we’ll eat you up—we love you so!” they tell him. Acting out, yelling at his mother that he wants to “EAT [HER] UP!” indicates that Max feels he is somewhere safe at home, that he knows he can act out there.

What he does not know is how to express his powerful emotions, which is why he is sent to his room to be alone in the first place. In the book, Max loves his mother. He knows, too, that she loves him. But, his jumbled emotions of anger, consumption, desire, and love are hard to disentangle and to handle. Importantly, the room Max returns to at the end of the story, the room he returns to after he rides his wave of emotions, not only has his supper in it waiting for him but it also has it waiting for him “still hot.” In other words, like Little Red Riding Hood, Max enjoys a comforting meal at the end of this tale, a meal similarly made with love by his mother. Forgiveness is felt, not said with words in this book. Max’s home, I suggest, is filled with “miraculous grace” at all times, as Tolkien terms it. Whether Max has tamed his emotions, his mother shows him love. Max’s mother is never shown in words or in images in the books at all; she is simply a presence in the story—almost a divine, omnipotent figure who loves Max and cares for him throughout. She acts as his anchor for all his “wild” feelings.

My son said he had no questions about the shooting when we asked him. My husband and I talked about the same topics we had with our daughter, only my son expressed that he definitely knew what it felt when there are adults around that he cannot trust. He is the older brother—the one who has perhaps had to learn about the world a little more quickly than his sister. Even though he had no questions, we told him that we always wanted him to know that we were the first stop for information—that he could ask us anything—and that we would answer with what we knew. We told him, too, that we do not know always know everything but will find the answers and let him know if there are sometimes not good ones to be had.

Perhaps our biggest fear as parents has been that our children might not feel as if they have had a space of comfort, a space where at the end of the day, just like in their stories, chocolate chip cookies and food “still hot” would always be waiting for them. The world today makes it seem as if everything is shaky. We want to make sure that our home is a sanctuary, where at least they know they have love.

Providing children stories of courage—and of grace—can help them make sense of confusing, troubled times. Stories can offer that feeling of comfort when one doesn’t have the right words just yet, or when one might not ever have the words for a tragedy so terrible. “Since it is so likely [children] will meet cruel enemies,” C.S. Lewis once said, “let them at least have hard of brave nights and heroic courage. Otherwise, you are making their destiny, not brighter but darker.”[5] Reading stories with children during troubled times can offer refuge when we ourselves feel shaken. They can offer light when we may feel we have none left to give.

Indeed, earlier in this essay, I shared that during the pandemic, book sales in general have risen, but it is here that I will add that “juvenile fiction that led the way.” It is not simply children who seek stories of comfort in fairy tales and fantasy. Adult readers, too, are flocking increasingly to reading children’s stories, all the while as they relive those other forms of nostalgic media from their past, as they relive moments and media from their own childhoods. Adults yearn the comfort of the “happily ever after” then. They yearn for the belief that there is something good to look forward to; they yearn for hope. In the Catholic worldview, this hope resonates with our lives every single day. Even on the very worst days, hope is present in the promise of the “resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” In the celebration of the Mass itself, there will forever remain comfort from mass shootings.

Ultimately, my husband and I feel it is less about the specific words of comfort we can provide our children during times of tragedy than the type of home we create, the grace we can try to give them, and the general narratives of hope we can provide them as comfort during a time when so much is tearing at their hearts. Stories, fairy tales and fantasies especially, are a way to open hopeful dialogue and provide comforting balm to children when words are not enough. Pope Francis talks of children in Fratelli Tutti, relaying that we ought to “arm our children with the weapons of dialogue!” and “teach them the good fight of the culture of encounter!” Stories provide all of us ways to discuss and encounter each other and the presence of Jesus in relationships, both fictional and real. They help us to all confront the tragic in our lives, and they provide comfort to us when words alone cannot convey what we feel.

As Catholic parents, we must try to remind our children, again and again, that there is joy at the end of all our human stories. We can read, share, and discuss stories of suffering and hope as much as possible with each other as a way to remember the final, joyful promise of our Christian experience. It is never an easy task to remember to seek hope amidst difficulty, but it is the heart of every Christian’s lived out story—to suffer, to die, to hope, and then to be redeemed. Sharing microcosms of this story again and again with each other—through fairy tales and picture books that exemplify grace freely given—offers a path to a child’s heart that meets them where they are rather than dictating where we want them to be or where we wish they would go. To share stories and dialogue about those stories is to be open not to what is always pleasant but to venture out to “where the wild things are” and to rest assured that as Christians “supper” will always be waiting. And it will always still be “hot.”

[1] Tanya Horeck, “‘Netflix and Heal’: The Shifting Meanings of Binge-Watching during the COVID-19 Crisis,” Film Quarterly, vol 75, no. 1 (2021), 35.40..

[2] Charles Perrault, “Little Red Riding Hood,” in The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, edited by Translated by Marie Ponsot (New York: Golden Book, 1999), 85-87.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories: Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes” (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

[4] Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are (New York: Harper Collins, 1963).

[5] C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in On Stories And Other Essays on Literature (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1982), 45-66.